As much as it pains me to admit it, we all know that biology is for girls. Call it some form of physics envy if you will, but Chemistry is what makes things tick - the gears at work. And in an ever-increasing age of multi-disciplinary science, Chemistry can often be overlooked. Despite the recurring theme of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry going to “biologists” for doing biology, Chemistry holds a special place in the science that we do and what we want our science to do for us. The natural world is a chemical one.
Under the banner of “Chemistry: our life, our future”, the Year will highlight the role that science is expected to play in such varied fields as health, food, the environment, energy and transport.
January marked the start of International Year of Chemistry, as proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly, aiming to celebrate the contributions made by chemistry to the well-being of mankind. What is chemistry? Chemistry is as simple as boiling an egg. Chemistry is the bark of a Peruvian tree going on to cure malaria. Chemistry is the exothermic reaction of sodium in a pool of water. Chemistry fuels the world... and stops wars.
Chemistry is what we know about the world. Chemistry is also what we don’t know.
We can debate what the first ever Chemistry experiment was... or even the first ever recorded scientific experiment. But the story of the Alchemist’s dream of turning lead into gold is probably the very first case of a negative result in chemistry. The type of negative result that went on to make the foundation of the Chemistry we know today. The alchemists of yesterday eventually gave way to the chemists of today. Exchanging mysticism and philosophy for the scientific method. Sir Isaac Newton’s love of alchemy fueled his more famous scientific discoveries.
Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table, easily the best science book ever written, is a detailed, poetic, moving account of his life and his science - Chemistry. Told through the prism of the natural elements, accounting successes and his failures regarding chemicals and reactions. Comparing and contrasting chemical reactions to real life. Nothing is as poignant as the last chapter - Carbon - detailing the life of a single carbon atom.
I mention this not only because these are just a few reasons we all love chemistry, but also as a metaphor for today. As a metaphor for negative results in Chemistry. A metaphor for what we do not know and what does not work. Some might look at Newton’s fruitless attempts to turn lead into gold as just that - fruitless. But not being able to turn lead into gold advanced knowledge. Wrong informs right. It is one thing to be wrong, but something completely different to be wrong in interesting ways.
So, on this international year celebrating Chemistry, go out there and do an experiment, record what happens, and if it doesn’t work, tell everyone about it.
Written by Dr. Charles Ebikeme for The All Results Journals.
NOTE FROM DAVID ALCANTARA: Please leave your best ideas about publication bias and how a journal of negative results could help on this International Year of Chemistry below in the comments. Please try to write up something with some value and contribute to this conversation with an insight, a practice, or a resource that we can all use to create more value. Thank you!